Bruges - Zeebrugge
The Brugge (Bruge) case study in Belgium has its focus on Zeebrugge, a coastal area of the Municipality of Brugge and in itself a seaport. Brugge is the capital and largest city of the Belgian province of West-Flanders. It is located in the northwest of the country. The historic centre of the city is a UNESCO site. It is egg shaped, located roughly 15 km from the sea and measures about 430 ha. The whole city comprises 13.840 ha, a proximally 1.075 of which are found at sea. In 2009 the city counted almost 117.000 inhabitants, 20.000 resided in the centre. The economic activities of the city are directly linked to its sea harbour, located in Zeebrugge.
The Brugge study area (SA) comprises the city of Brugge and several of its surrounding communes, which are Blankenberge, Zuienkerke, Jabbeke, Zedelgem, Oostkamp, Beernem, Damme and Knokke-Heist. This creates a total study area of over 616 km2
and a total of over 255.000 inhabitants. The coastline in this study area is roughly 18,5 km long.
In this study area there are numerous sightings and important areas, this for the region and for the whole of Belgium:
- The centre of Brugge is a UNESCO world heritage. It is an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement, which has maintained its historic fabric as this has evolved over the centuries, and where original Gothic constructions form part of the town's identity. As one of the commercial and cultural capitals of Europe, Brugge developedcultural links to different parts of the world. It is closely associated with the school of Flemish Primitive painting.
- The historic centre of Damme, the outer port of Brugge developed in the 12th century. Damme historical centre was defended by a star-shaped fortification, which is still shown on aerial pictures.
- The pier of Blankenberge: The pier in Blankenberge is the only pier on the Belgian coast. It was constructed in 1933, and is 350m long.
- The Zwin, a nature reserve with a coastline of 2,3 km, locates across the border between Belgium and Holland with 125ha are found in Belgium and 33ha in Holland. It is an important RAMSAR site and has a lot of unique coastal flora and is a save haven for a variety of seabird.
- The port of Zeebrugge: initially, it was a village, starts at the end of the 19th century. At that point there was a small fishing settlement sited, surrounded by beach and dunes. Nowadays, Zeebrugge is dwarfed by the enormous artificial harbor under construction there since 1895.
Connections to the sea
The history of Brugge is marked by its connection to the sea. For the development of the city, two sea breaches or transgression were implemented, which created a large creek, several kilometers wide, connecting Brugge to the sea. During the following centuries, the sea retrieved and land began to silt up. Occasional floodings in the first half of the 11th century kept Brugge connected to the sea, but also encouraged the building of dykes. These dykes helped Brugge to become one of the most important Belgian cities in the Middle Ages. In 1134, a major storm hit the coast. Most of the dykes on the coastline withstood the power of the sea, except those in the northeast, called the Sincfal. The water made its way inland, whereby the dykes, positioned there acted as a chute. This created a new small creek, located only 5 km from Brugge, and called ‘Zwin’. By the end of the 12th century, a town, Damme, developed there, acting as an outer harbor for Brugge. The connection was made through a short channel, the Reie. This marked the beginning of the golden ages for Brugge, which held on until the beginning of the 15th century. By then, the Zwin started to silt up, and the outer harbor had to move to Sluis, more than 10 km to the northeast of Damme. During the eighty-year war, Brugge lies in the frontline, and in 1604, it loses Sluis to the Northern Dutchmen. At this point Brugge is no longer connected to the sea. This only came to an end with the creation of Zeebrugge, at the end of the 19th century.
Brugge as a settlement, later a city
Recent findings conclude that during the prehistoric period, there already were settlements in the area of Brugge. Remnants, discovered in 2000, suggest the presence of grave or cult monuments. There were also structures exposed that were used to collect salt from the sea; these were used during the Iron Ages. The highlight of this society can be put in 500-300 BC.
In the first centuries of this era, the Romans had a settlement in Brugge, a shipwreck can be found there, insinuate contacts with England and East-Gaul. Due to a severe storm in the 9th century, Brugge became better connected to the sea, but also more exposed to raids of the Vikings. A first castle was build, and became fortified in later years. By the end of the century, Brugge was a historic county. The connection to the sea also improved Brugge position as a centre for international traffic. With its outer-harbor Damme, Brugge became a flourishing city. Inhabitants’ numbers grew and the city underwent great constructions. After a few decades, new districts emerged outside the city walls and an expansion was completed by 1301, when a second city wall was constructed.
In the 13th, the 14th and the 15th century the number of houses grew, but also a significant number of buildings with a commercial, religious or social function were constructed. Some of them still represent today. By the end of the 15th century, with the silt up of the Zwin and the decline of traditional broadcloth industry, Brugge became less and less important in the Flemish and international trade and the number of inhabitants declined. Several attempts to revive the economy were implemented including liberalizing the rules, and building two new channels (between Damme and Sluis and between Brugge and Sluis) to facilitate trades. But the revival was short-lived. At the beginning of the 17th century the Westerschelde, and by that the Zwin was blocked by the Northern Dutchmen. At this point, the harbors of Oostende and Duinkerke provided an alternative. With the blockage of the Westerschelde, and the connection to two new sea harbors, Brugge could act as a junction to the Flemish hinterland. This attempt - due to taxes and time losses - wasn’t loved by all cities and merchants, but by the mid 17th century Brugge became again an important city in the international trade.
This economic revival came to an abrupt stop at the beginning of the 18th century. In the aftermath of the Spanish succession war, the Flemish region was given to the crown of Austria. Brugge lost its trading position with the Mediterranean world, and its colonies. From Oostende, a new trading route with the Asian world originated, but Brugge couldn’t restore its previous position to the full.
Besides its harbor and merchant activities, the area of Brugge was known, until the end of the 18th century, as one of the most important and fertile agricultural zones of Western Europe. This, combined with its important textile industry, made Brugge a prosperous region. In 1830, Brugge was the 5th largest city of the newly founded kingdom of Belgium. Its economic situation was concentrated on textile and agriculture. It didn’t succeeded in following the industrial revolution. While Belgian cities like Luik, The Borinage and Gent saw an industrial expansion and Brussels became the capital of Belgian, with all its grandeur, Brugge and the rest the coastal area couldn’t catch up. On top of that, harvests failed and the underground didn’t provide the region with minerals (coal, iron, etc.). The social and economic structures, previously so prosperous collapsed. Even the harbor, once the focal point of Brugge, wasn’t big enough anymore to anchor the ever-growing sea-going ships.
In the second half of the 19th century, George Rodenbach, a Belgian novelist and poet, described Brugge as a poor and bleed-to-death city (‘Bruges la morte’). The turning point came in 1877 with the publication of ‘D’une communication directe de Bruge à la mer’ (A direct connection between Brugge and the sea), written by Auguste de Maere, a hydraulic engineer. De Maere was a member of the city council of Gent, and had the intention to connect Gent with the sea, with Brugge acting as an outer harbor. Unfortunately, nobody in Gent was in favor of the plan.
On the other hand, the council of Brugge, and its inhabitants, supported the idea. Even Leopold II, King of Belgium at that time, was won for that plan. With a new sea harbor at the coast, Belgium could prepare itself for the first maritime revolution in which sealing ships are being replaced by giant, steel steaming boats.
In 1891 the Belgian government installed the “Commission Mixte de Bruges Port de Mer” who organized a competition for the planning of a sea harbor in Brugge, with a connection to the sea, preferably passing Heist.
The creation of Zeebrugge
The recent history of Brugge and its economic revival is marked by the creation of this port between Blankenberge and Heist, but it was a slow and difficult start. This outer-harbor at the Belgian coast was named ‘Zeebrugge’ which means ‘Brugge at the sea’. In 1901, this area became a formal part of the city of Brugge.
The initial project was based around a crescent-shaped mole, built out from the shore to safeguard incoming and outgoing ships. A channel was dug out between Zeebrugge and Brugge and in Brugge the inner harbor was upgraded to receive bigger ships. In 1907, the port officially opened. The first few years, trading traffic remained below expectations. This was partly due to the lack of possible freight leaving Brugge and the underdevelopment of connections to the hinterland. Ferry services were more successful with shuttles between Hull (England) and Rotterdam (the Netherlands).
During the two World Wars, Zeebrugge had been destructed and rebuilt twice due to its strategic locations. It took until 1951 to fully restore the port and its activities. In spite of the destructions the two wars caused to Zeebrugge, it had proven its strategic maritime position. Renovation works and expansions were carried out between 1950 and 1975 to make use of this position. The whole complex received 3 new docking stations and an artificial peninsula was build to handle traffic directly at sea. At this point, all major harbor activities shifted from Brugge to Zeebrugge.
The transition was successful and in the decades to follow, Zeebrugge became one of the world most important harbors. To maximize this success, the harbor underwent a second expansion. The government decides to make it into a deep-sea harbor, which could handle even the biggest carriers. Two gigantic longitudinal embankments, with a length of 4 km, were build to protect the outer harbor and several new docking stations were erected between them. Also the inner harbor grew significantly. The harbor had won over 1000ha into the sea.
Present day voices predict that Zeebrugge hasn’t reached his limits yet, and expansions will follow, first between the embankments, later maybe outside them. Also a better connection with the hinterland is needed.